Hollywood has been hit with a grim bolt from the blue, with news today that veteran action director Tony Scott, brother of Ridley, has reportedly committed suicide. He was 68.
Scott’s last picture was 2011’s disastertainment pulse-pounder Unstoppable, a horror-on-rails epic in which the villain was a freight train that wouldn’t slow down. He was that sort of filmmaker.
In one memorably ridiculous scene Denzel Washington — the jaded “on my last day before retirement” driver — runs across the roof, jumping between carriages, trying to prevent the death of thousands from the toxic gas that, naturally, lies in the train’s cargo.
As I wrote last year: “there is a delirious kind of pleasure in watching Washington in determined do-gooder mode, running heroically down the roof of a roaring locomotive, the scenery a blur of colours and swirls in the periphery vision of a bloke who could be excused for thinking that he should have slept in.”
That scene is typical of the British-born director’s cranked-to-11 sense of spectacle, the all-in grunt and groan characteristic of an artist for whom words like “unrealistic” or “hyperbole” were terminology from another, far less interesting universe.
But like any director, Scott’s obituaries and death notices inevitably list the movies that have lingered longest in public recollection. Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), True Romance (1993) and Crimson Tide (1995) are some of his most famous.
Pushing aside the shambolic yet achingly dull Top-Gun-on-wheels clunker Days of Thunder (1990) and Robert De Niro thriller The Fan (1996), the 90s was Scott’s most consistent decade.
The Last Boy Scout (1991) helped define Bruce Willis as the gruff scotch-for-breakfast hard-man, True Romance turned a slick Tarantino screenplay into a scorching crime flick, Crimson Tide remains the best multiplex submarine movie to roll out of Hollywood and Enemy of the State (1998) is a rollicking on-the-run surveillance pic, one part George Orwell and two parts, well, Tony Scott.
Scott remained relatively prolific in the naughties, delivering five movies including the under-rated hard-boiled revenge drama Man on Fire (2004) and Domino (2005), an obscenely hyperactive bounty hunter head rush memorable for a particularly visceral scene in an elevator.
When Scott went bad, he was generally audaciously bad, his directorial grip on productions as wildly plotted as the patchy pseudo time travel pic Deja Vu (2006) like a bug-eyed addict unsuccessfully juggling a bar of soap. He never conjured spectacle in half measure but had an appreciation for his characters that extended far beyond “fucking the frame,” as his contemporary Michael Bay so eloquently put it.
Scott, whose influence on modern action cinema is as obvious as a blast of water from a high-powered hose right to the face, is survived by his wife and two kids.
In November 2010, I was the guest of Australian podcast Hell is for Hyphenates, during which myself and hosts Lee Zachariah and Paul Anthony Nelson debated at length Tony Scott’s body of work. Conversation about Scott begins around the 28 minute mark.